When my husband and I were house-hunting, I had one demand: new construction. I’d spent most of my adulthood in ‘charming’ apartments with ‘character’, which is real-estate code for tiny apartments with decades-old appliances.
For our first home, I wanted something brand new, and we lucked out: we found an apartment that was so new it wasn’t even built yet. The construction zone of a building had a model unit primed for viewings, and we went to look at it twice in two days before putting in an offer just 48 hours later.
The whole time, I’d been wearing rose-tinted glasses, confident that we’d avoided all the hiccups that come from buying an older home. No hidden lead paint for us! No replacing the furnace in the next 10 years! No creaks in our wood floors!
Sure, there were some serious benefits to a never-before-lived-in abode, but as a novice homeowner, I wasn’t prepared for some of the surprises that revealed themselves along the way. Here are some of the biggest lessons learned after buying a newly minted home.
1. Don’t have them install things you don’t want
The apartments in our building came standard with a 50-bottle wine fridge that took up a third of the kitchen island. I love a nice Chardonnay now and then, but I love storage space more. Because it wasn’t yet installed, I was able to have them put the cost of the mini fridge toward building out more drawers in its place. Speak up if there’s some add-on that, while impressive, isn’t a feature you’ll use.
2. Customise what you can, trust them on the rest
I always fantasised about designing my own home from scratch (who hasn’t, I suppose?), so when the developers told us we’d put in our offer when there was ‘still time for customisation’, I was elated. I couldn’t wait to study different tile samples and pick out paint swatches. It took one week – which included an epic, heated knob-vs-handle debate with my husband – before I threw in the towel. I made some requests, like different pendant lights in the kitchen and a grey subway tile backsplash I’d always swooned over in interior-design magazines, but for the most part, I stuck with what was in the model unit.
My thinking? The development team – which included professional stagers – selected finishes that worked for the space and the style, and without a ton of knowledge, I was likely to choose some fixture that, once installed, really wouldn’t ‘go’.
3. Ask for more than you think you can get
When touring the model unit, I’d see something and think, ‘Aw, too bad, I wouldn’t have chosen that,’ before realising that they hadn’t even put our floorboards in yet. I figured it was worth a shot in asking for big-ticket tweaks if it meant me saving thousands of dollars in replacements … or a lifetime of aggravation. Our powder room had a pedestal sink, and I preferred a standard vanity (hello, storage space). The fridge had a side-by-side freezer, and I’d grown fond of having the freezer component as the bottom drawer.
To my surprise, on both counts, the developer made it work, without pushing added costs onto us. Miracles do happen; you just have to request them.
4. Assume nothing
One of the biggest draws of our apartment was that it was in an elevator building. Because we were on the top floor, and because I had grown to hate navigating a stroller down a flight of stairs in my last apartment, it was a big deal. But because the building was a construction zone for most of the waiting period before closing, I didn’t realise that the developer wasn’t entirely honest about the lift access.
For some reason that still mystifies me, our elevator begins on the second floor. From street level, in order to get to the elevator, you have to go through a separate door, up a handicap-accessible chair lift, and then down a corridor to the elevator. It’s still a ridiculous hassle, and even though I remind myself that me noticing it earlier wouldn’t have changed anything (we weren’t going to back out and they weren’t going to completely rebuild an lift shaft because I was annoyed), I wish I had paid more attention to what was unfinished as much as I did what was on display.
5. Prepare for everything to get sloppier as time progresses
After our offer was approved, we were at the construction site frequently. The first visits were so hopeful – we’d see workers installing the wood flooring with expert precision. Then a few weeks would go by, and we’d pop in to see contractors studiously installing the closet shelving. A few more weeks later, and painters were priming the walls … and spilling some drops on the floor. Then, the appliances arrived, and one hurried guy who I assumed was supposed to be there dented the fridge while trying to shimmy it in place. The closer to the contractor’s deadline, the less TLC our home got from those making it. Understandable, sure, but still painful to witness.
6. Get an inspection even if it seems unnecessary
With new construction, developers have inspectors coming in daily to ensure everything is being built to code. That, coupled with the fact that all the appliances are new, might make you think it’s a waste of money to hire an inspector on your own dime. Not true. Thankfully, our inspector detected a small, persistent gas leak (that would one day rear its head in ways I try not to imagine), and it was fixed.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that most inspections will have to take place further down the line than when buying a finished home. By the time you have it with new construction, it might be too late to walk away without a sizeable financial hit if you aren’t satisfied with the findings.
7. Get every little thing in writing
It’s by scrimping and saving that we were able to afford to buy a home in the first place, so I wasn’t about to trust handshakes and verbal agreements when it came to who was paying for what. During our closing appointment, the developer’s attorney asked for a cheque for the average cost of the fridge, since we’d gone for a more expensive option. Instead, I just handed him a copy of the email that stated we didn’t have to pay any extra.
8. Accept that the house will change
With a new home, what you walk into on move-in day won’t be exactly the same as what you’re living in a year later. Houses, and apartment buildings, need to ‘settle’, and that only happens with time. Like clockwork, at the end of every new season, we’d notice cracks in our windowsills and along our crown moulding. Certain doors would all of a sudden be tighter and harder to open. The best advice we got to minimise these subtle but sometimes frustrating changes was to install a home humidifier and use it diligently.
9. Be flexible on timing
In life, and in home buying, it’s best to operate on the philosophy that what can go wrong will go wrong … and it’ll go wrong later than you anticipated. We’d been warned that closing dates on any type of property, new or old, can get pushed back, so we made sure that we had an extra month on our lease as padding. With homes in the process of being built, those delays can be exponentially longer. Thankfully, we were able to close and move in before our final lease was up, but you can bet we regretted not having a Plan C.
10. After close, it’s all yours
For better or worse, once you sign on the dotted line, the apartment is your responsibility. No landlords or superintendents to call when a hard-to-reach light bulb goes out. Most new-construction homes come with a one-year warranty for building-related issues – if, for instance, the lock on your back door falls right off or you get mould from a poorly ventilated bathroom (both of which happened to us). That way, you aren’t completely on the hook for every issue that bubbles up.
It’s also a smart idea to organise documents for all your appliances, fill out warranties, and get an idea of what is included in coverage, before a need arises. Our developer maintained our building warranty didn’t cover the fact that I wasn’t getting any hot water in my gorgeous, marble-tiled shower, so I had to scramble to go straight to the source on that one. And, now that the year-long window of coverage is up, our home is officially ours … and ours alone.